He is not only remembered for being one of the last children born to enslaved parents in America, but for being a staunch civil rights activist who fought for the rights of his fellow Blacks. Daniel Smith marched on Washington with Martin Luther King Jr., fled the Ku Klux Klan, met Archbishop Desmond Tutu during South Africa’s era of apartheid, and was present at the inauguration of America’s first Black president, Barack Obama. The rich life story of Daniel Smith, one of last children born to enslaved parent in US
He would work as a federal worker, founding a national training program for primary care physicians before his demise on Wednesday at the age of 90. Born in Winsted, Connecticut, on March 11, 1932, Smith was the fifth of six children. His mother, Clara, was White, with Scotch-Irish and Cherokee ancestry. His father, Abram Smith, was a formerly enslaved man who had him when he was 70. Clara was then 23.
Growing up, Smith heard slavery stories from his father, who was born into bondage in Virginia during the 1860s before moving north to Connecticut with his family.
“I remember hearing about two slaves who were chained together at the wrist and tried to run away. They were found by some vicious dogs hiding under a tree, and hanged from it,” Smith recalled years later. “I also remember a story about an enslaved man who was accused of lying to his owner. He was made to step out into the snow with his family and put his tongue on an icy wagon wheel until it stuck. When he tried to remove it, half his tongue came off.”
He said his father cried as he narrated these stories to him and his siblings. Still, he taught them to be kind and to “do good things” and never “talk negatively about America,” Smith recalled in an interview with CBS.
“He said, ‘You have nothing to cry about. This is America. We came from the strongest of the strong. We survived the ships,'” Smith said. “He gave me the signal to be strong and to survive.”
And Smith did survive after his father’s death in an accident when he was only six years old. His mom had to work as a housekeeper to take care of him and his siblings with assistance from surrogate fathers, according to The Washington Post. One of the surrogate fathers was a White veterinarian who helped Smith get a job at his clinic, and it was through that job that became a lover of dogs. He took part in American Kennel Club competitions at New York’s Madison Square Garden, where he was among a few Black trainers. He had wanted to serve in the Army’s K-9 Corps but the color of his skin didn’t allow him to so he served as a medic at a military hospital in Korea.
Back home in Winsted in 1955, flooding claimed the lives of nearly 100 people during Hurricane Diane. Smith made headlines as a hero when he rescued a truck driver from the floodwaters. Smith subsequently went to college and became student body president elected by a mixed-race student body. And then while working at a YMCA camp near Winsted, Smith had an experience he would never forget. He had gone with his young charges to see an old reservoir when he tried to help a girl who had gone into the deep water and had been pulled out by another swimmer.
Having found a clear pulse, Smith decided to start mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on the girl, who was white. But just then, he heard a policeman shout: “She’s already dead!”
Smith immediately realized that the policeman just didn’t want a Black man to touch a White woman. The policeman would rather have her die so he stopped. Smith had faced discrimination growing up but “this remains the most racist incident I have ever experienced in my life,” he wrote in his memoir.
After graduating in 1960 from Springfield College in Massachusetts, Smith worked as a psychiatric social worker and headed to veterinary school at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. But he left medicine for civil rights, becoming the leader of an antipoverty program in Lowndes County, Montgomery. his office building was burned to the ground by white supremacists who also attempted to run his car off a highway but he escaped to a gas station full of Black customers, according to CBS News.
In 1963, he was present when King gave his “I have a dream” speech before he later settled in the Washington area, running the federally funded program called the Area Health Education Centers that sought to improve healthcare.
It was that work that took him to South Africa, where he met Archbishop Desmond Tutu during apartheid. Years later, he would witness the swearing-in of Obama and he was proud to be part of that historic moment. Smith had earlier met presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush while serving as an usher at the Washington National Cathedral after his retirement in 1994.
Civil rights activist Smith was working on his memoir when he passed away last week. His wife Loretta Neumann said her husband had cancer and congestive heart failure. Smith is survived by his wife, two children from a first marriage and a granddaughter.